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The contradictions in Johannesburg are high. Shining skyscrapers in the business center, against slums in the edge of the city. White people who travel in costly cars and black people who do the 'dirty work'. If you don't know better, you would think apartheid still exists. By law, racial segregation may be abolished, the reality is more relentless...
Johannesburg is not a particular nice city, but there are great restaurants, shops and several attractions. The suburb of Sandton is increasingly evolving into a throbbing heart of the city, as the security in the Central Business District (CBD) leaves to desire. Although the business community has taken action by placing dozens of security cameras, many businesses have decided and are deciding to leave the CBD.
We do not want to exaggerate about the 'dangerous' Johannesburg. If you use your common sense you can easily enjoy the largest city in South Africa. It is wise to not walk the streets on your own at night. Furthermore, all car drivers keep their windows shut and doors locked.
Apartheid has long pressed its dark stamp on the country. The Apartheid Museum is therefore one of the most visited attractions in Johannesburg. It is the only place in South Africa where whites and blacks are obliged to use different entrances. This is to make you feel how the system worked. There is an impressive exhibition inside with pictures, video, and symbolism. Thus in one room 121 straps hang from the ceiling: one for every political prisoner who was killed during the apartheid regime.
The Hector Pieterson Museum is dedicated to the apartheid too, in particular to the 1976 revolt in the black township of Soweto. Hector Pieterson was one of the first students shot at that insurgency. Today, many tours are organized to Soweto, to show the world how life in one of those townships is. Soweto is getting better, step by step, it even has a Holiday Inn hotel! You can also visit the home where Nelson Mandela lived in this township.
A square has been named after the former president and Nobel Prize winner in the aforementioned Sandton. That square is car free and there are cafes, terraces and restaurants. Around it are luxury shops and showrooms of expensive car brands like Rolls Royce, BMW, Ducati and Aston Martin. It is clear where the richer part of Johannesburg feels at home...
The Newton district used to be the center of the stone industry. This area has been revamped in recent years and became the cultural center of the city with theaters, galleries and museums, as well as markets, shops and restaurants. We recommend the MuseuMAfrica, dedicated to the history of South Africa from 1935 onwards. In the Soweto Art Gallery you can see modern works by black artists. Also fun is the brewery of South Africa's largest beer manufacturer. In SAB World of Beer you can take a tour of the brewery and try a beer in a rebuilt 'shebeen' (illegal cafe in the black residential areas) from 1965.
Johannesburg was founded as a gold explorer town. That history comes alive in the Gold Reef City, six kilometers south of the city center. It is a theme park with roller coasters, a ferris wheel, water slides and other attractions, but it's a bit more than just entertainment. This amusement park is built on the site of a former gold mine. You can descend into a mine shaft, but 'only' to a depth of 226 meters. It also shows how a 'bar' of gold is poured. You can take the bar home if you succeed in lifting it with only two fingers. Everyone tries, no one succeeds.
If you have never been on a safari in Africa, the Johannesburg Zoo is a must. in this zoo in Parktown you see a small version of Africa. From The Heart of Africa, via the Spice Route to Southern Safari. Sections have been dedicated to other continents too, like Amazonia (South America) and Extreme Environments (Including the North and South Pole).
At less than an hours drive from Johannesburg is The Cradle of Humankind, located at Sterkfontein. In these caves, remains have been found of people who lived here over three million years ago. Our ancestors probably lived across Africa but human remains have been found only where circumstances were ideal. The visitor center of The Cradle of Humankind shows the results of the excavations but there are interactive presentations too.
Johannesburg has a good range of accommodations. The best hotels are in the suburbs of Sandton. This happens to be one of the safer neighborhoods of the city too. The hotels in the center charge much lower prices and for a reason. For security reasons, more and more visitors avoid the city center...
We do not want to exaggerate the dangers of Johannesburg, but we do want to give some tips to drive safely around the city. Keep windows shut and doors locked at all times. Pay extra attention near traffic lights, these are infamous places where thieves see the chance to smash a window and grab valuables. But of course, not everyone near a traffic light is a thieve. If you suspect danger, it is best to keep driving, even though the traffic light is red.
You can park your car in one of the garages, in a car park, or on the street. If you opt for this last option, leave your rental car under the watchful eye of an official parking attendant. You can recognize them by their red or yellow reflective vests.
Johannesburg Airport is located 25 kilometers east of the city center. Johannesburg International Airport is easily reached by rental car. The highway R24 runs from Johannesburg to the airport. At the airport is a fairly complicated junction connecting the R24 to the R21. This road leads to Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa.